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China is ready to launch first astronauts to space station with Shenzhou-12

HELSINKI – China rolled out a long March 2F rocket on Wednesday in preparation for sending the Shenzhou 12 spacecraft and three astronauts to a space station module orbit.

The long March 2F rocket was transferred vertically to its cushion at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in the Gobi Desert, the China Manned Space Engineering Office (CMSEO) announced Wednesday.

The rocket sends Shenzhou-12 and three astronauts to Tianhe’s nuclear module to China’s space station, which launched April 28th Eastern.

Authorities have not yet revealed the planned launch date or the identity of the primary crew members and backup crews. Shenzhou-1

2 was expected to be launched around June 10 Beijing time, but a week-long delay with the launch of Tianzhou-2 freight mission probably pushed the date back by a similar period.

The Shenzhou 12 mission will involve a series of technical verification tasks related to the execution and operation of the Tianhe core module. It will include extravehicular activities using EVA suits provided by Tianzhou-2 and verification of a regenerative life support system.

Shenzhou-12 will be the country’s first manned mission in more than four and a half years and only the seventh overall. China’s first mission with crew was Shenzhou-5 in 2003, making the country only the third to demonstrate independent human space capabilities.

The mission will see for the first time since May 2000 that two orbiting space stations will be inhabited simultaneously when STS-101 and Soyuz TM-30 visited the ISS and Mir, respectively. Three Shenzhou flights to small Tiangong space laboratories took place in 2012, 2013 and 2016 – along with permanent ISS habitation – as springboard missions towards the larger space station modules.

Shenzhou-12 will also set a record for Chinese space mission duration. The mission is expected to remain anchored at Tianhe until September, meaning that its roughly three-month mission far exceeds the 33-day record set by Shenzhou-11 in 2016.

Long March 2F and Shenzhou spacecraft were developed to provide human spaceflight capabilities following the approval of “Project 921” in 1992. The plan also outlined the long-term vision for a modular space station.

The 62 meter long, 464 meter long Long March 2F consists of two steps and four side boosters. All of these use a propellant mixture of highly toxic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide. The launcher has a starting exit system on top of the casing that relies on solid rocket engines.

The 16.6 meter long, 4.2 meter diameter Tianhe will provide regenerative life support and the main living quarters for astronauts as well as propulsion to maintain orbital altitude.

Chinese space station construction

Shenzhou-12 will be the third of 11 missions planned for the construction phase of the three-module Chinese space station in 2021 and 2022.

The Tianzhou 3 cargo hold and Shenzhou 13 crew mission follow in September and October, respectively.

Experiment modules named Wentian and Mengtian are expected to be launched in 2022. The pair will host an abundance of experiments in areas including astronomy, space medicine, space science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion and space technology.

International scientific payloads will also fly to the space station through cooperation between the United Nations Office on External Relations (UNOOSA) and CMSEO. Foreign astronauts are also expected to visit CSS.

Both modules are launched by Long March 5B rockets from Wenchang. The first phase of Long March 5B, which launched Tianhe, entered orbit and made one high-profile, uncontrolled re-entry.

The Chinese space station is expected to operate in orbit for at least ten years. It will be connected in orbit by Xuntian optical module, a co-orbiting Hubble-class telescope. The space telescope has a 2 meter aperture comparable to Hubble, but has a field of view 300 times larger.

This field of view allows Xuntian to explore 40 percent of the sky over the course of a decade using its 2.5 billion pixel camera.

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